Tama Janowitz's 'A Certain Age' -- Edith Wharton on crack?

August 08, 1999|By Chris Kridler | By Chris Kridler,Sun Staff

"A Certain Age," by Tama Janowitz. Doubleday. 317 pages. $23.95.

Thackeray's "Vanity Fair" is praised for its brilliant satire. But I can't remember a single character in it whom I actually liked. The latter is also true of Tama Janowitz's new novel, "A Certain Age." It's full of despicable people, but at least it fits the definition of satire. The problem is, she picks such easy targets -- the gilded automatons of New York high society -- that her victory is cheap.

Janowitz's novels, which include "A Cannibal in Manhattan" and "The Male Cross-Dresser Support Group," have rarely strayed from the Big Apple since she made a splash in the '80s as the "brat pack" writer of "Slaves of New York." Somehow, "Slaves" was more fun than "A Certain Age"; at least her characters were struggling, even if they were just as obsessed with real estate.

The protagonist of "A Certain Age" is also struggling, but not in any meaningful way. Florence had money and is losing it. Florence had beauty and feels she is losing it, as she is past that "certain age" of 30. Florence had -- well, one can't say she is losing her mind, because it's not really clear if she had one.

Still, she has enough of a brain -- expressed through Janowitz's meticulous, cutting details -- to allow us to hope, at first, for some readerly empathy to develop. Don't count on it.

Florence is criminally irresponsible, amoral, intermittently daffy and shallow. There's a great tradition of such characters in literature, characters of intriguing complexity and even roguish charm, but Florence, though well and thoroughly conceived, is simply appalling. When she meets the one nice guy in New York (at least, in this New York), I actually found myself hoping it wouldn't work out so that he wouldn't be stuck with her.

Florence sees only one way to achieve the life she desperately desires: "No one wanted to admit it, but even now the highest status for women in New York, was to be married to a rich man. Marriage was still the great achievement, and single women, no matter how powerful, were still considered suspect, desperate or damaged."

This philosophy amounts to post-feminist Edith Wharton on crack. And Janowitz clearly includes its disciple, Florence, in her satirical sights.

Florence makes $26,000 a year but spends $1,500 on an outfit without a second thought. The pedigrees of fashion, food and furniture flavor her observations like packets of Equal. Everything in this book has a price, including Florence's own self-hatred.

There's a kind of dreadful suspense in seeing just how low Florence will go. The more the aristocracy squashes her, the more she wants to belong. There's a hierarchy of leeches and misers that she must negotiate through a succession of parties, art shows, bars and tawdry trysts as she descends into oblivion.

An array of loathesome characters drifts through this anthropology of the urban undead. They include Florence's rivals; for her, there is no such thing as a true female friend:

"There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women like herself: they worked in art galleries, on magazines, for investment companies. They all had poise, little black cocktail dresses, black pumps with the latest heel. They went to screenings, to parties at the Museum of Modern Art, to fashion shows. They had manners, conversational skills, apartments furnished with flea-market finds, forties glass coffee tables, their clothes were dry-cleaned; they worked out at the gym. They skied in Colorado in winter and managed to get in a trip to St. Barts in the spring. Summers they weekended in the Hamptons. Hundreds of these women, aged twenty-five, twenty-seven, thirty-three, ageless, and if they showed signs of age, they knew the right plastic-surgeon and were prepared to spend."

The weakness of "A Certain Age" is that no one outside of New York will be particularly surprised at just how superficial, stupid and, yes, boring this set can be. Besides, do any of us really care that much about New York, including most New Yorkers? Will our inner landscapes be changed if the type of sleek society zombies portrayed here learn that shopping at Wal-Mart and wearing cheap sunglasses will not kill you but may even make you stronger?

Ultimately, the emotional weight of this story is not as heavy as Florence's fall is far. And to see Janowitz giving these mummies their medicine, however tart it may be, is only mildly, not wildly, fun.

Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Newsweek, Premiere, the Maryland Poetry Review and elsewhere.

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